I don’t write for readers. I write for me. And I always have.
Jean Auel, 75
CLOSE TO MIDNIGHT one evening in 1977, inspiration struck Jean Auel. Then a 41-year-old mother of five, she imagined a short story about a young woman living 30,000 years ago among a people who were not her own. Her family snugly tucked in their beds, she stayed up into the early morning, writing a rough draft. Soon, she had become a woman obsessed with simple, everyday lives of prehistoric humans.
“When I got into reading and finding all this stuff out, I kept saying, ‘Why don’t I know this? Why doesn’t everybody know it?’” Auel recalls. “‘Well, because it’s not accessible. I’m going to make it accessible.’”
Beginning with the 1980 classic The Clan of the Cave Bear, a story about a Cro-Magnon girl named Ayla living among a Neanderthal clan, Auel’s Earth’s Children series spans six books and 1.7 million words. By the time she released the final book in the series last March, 34 years after that initial spark of an idea, Auel had sold over 45 million copies of Ayla’s story in more than 30 languages.
“Ideas float in the atmosphere. Ideas are not hard to get,” says Auel, who still writes mostly at night. “It’s what you do with them.”
Like Ayla, Auel has made herself right at home as an outsider. Despite no formal training in archaelology (she holds an MBA earned going to night school), she counts among her closest friends some of the world’s most sought-after paleoanthropologists and archaeologists, such as Jean-Philippe Rigaud, Ian Tattersall, and Chris Stringer. She frequently receives invitations to scientific conferences and presentations. The interspecies crossbreeding Auel first imagined in Clan of the Cave Bear—and widely pooh-poohed by all but a few scientists—turned out to be true.
“I know young men,” shrugs Auel. “You start getting people together, and you’re going to start exchanging genes. That’s just the way it is.”
Still, Auel has no illusions that she is anything but a novelist first. At 75, she continues to find fusing science and fiction equally exciting and excruciating. “By the time I get through a night of writing, I’m drained,” she says. “It’s all coming out. Like I had antennas coming out of all 10 fingers and all 10 toes.”
“But I’ve got this insatiable curiosity problem,” she adds. “I hope I never lose it.” —Martin Patail